April 8 is Easter, when Christians worldwide celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. We gather the first day of every week throughout the year for this same purpose, but Easter Sunday marks the anniversary of the event.
Or does it? “No, no,” some insist, “not the anniversary of the event, the commemoration of the experience.”
It has become something of a rite of spring for some leading voice among this or that mainline Christian denomination to assure the world that the resurrection of Jesus was not a historic event. In March 2008, for instance, the Dean of Perth at St. George’s Anglican Cathedral, the Very Reverend John Shepherd, insisted that “the resurrection of Jesus ought not to be seen in physical terms, but as a new spiritual reality.” He urged his hearers to understand that it is “important for Christians to be set free from the idea that the resurrection was an extraordinary physical event which restored to life Jesus’ original earthly body.” The physical resurrection of Jesus is not only unessential to Reverend Shepherd’s faith, it is apparently something of an encumbrance.
The fourth article in the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion—not long ago the Anglican Church’s official creed—claims that “Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature.” But not to worry, the Very Reverend John Shepherd assures us, religion is always evolving. Old, dusty documents like the Articles should not be permitted to exercise undue influence upon our enlightenment.
In fact, many assert that the Apostle Paul got a lot of things wrong: his view on the role relationships between men and women, his view of homosexuality, his view on Jesus’ death as a satisfaction of God’s just wrath, and more. And he got this resurrection thing wrong as well. Just as we have evolved beyond the Apostle’s archaic notions of gender and sexuality, penal atonement, and the like, so we have been enlightened to realize that no one rises from the dead in bodily form.
In The Meaning of Jesus (Harper Collins, 2000), Marcus Borg claims that the essence of Easter is not that Jesus was witnessed as alive by His disciples, but rather that “Jesus was experienced” by them (p. 129, emphasis added). Borg asks: “Does the truth of Easter depend upon the empty tomb and appearance stories being historically factual in this objective sense?” He answers: “I see the empty tomb and whatever happened to the corpse of Jesus to be ultimately irrelevant to the truth of Easter.” Rather, Borg sees the “appearance stories” as the result of “developing tradition” and as true only as “metaphorical narratives” (p. 130). “My argument” he continues, “is not that we know the tomb was not empty or that nothing happened to his body, but simply that it doesn’t matter. The truth of Easter, as I see it, is not at stake in this issue” (p. 131). He adds, “The truth of Easter does not depend upon something having happened to Jesus’ corpse” (p. 132). According to Borg, the Easter narratives found in each of the four Gospels are meant only to stress the importance of one’s continuing experience of Jesus’ influence after His death.
How starkly disharmonious these words sound against the teaching of the Bible. Writing to the Corinthian church, the Apostle Paul reminded the believers that his apostolic message hinged on the physical death and bodily resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:1-2). Paul asserts that Jesus physically died (15:3). The attestation of Jesus’ death was the fact that His corpse was buried in a tomb (15:4). Paul then asserts that Jesus arose from the dead in fulfillment of prophecy (15:4). The attestation of Jesus’ resurrection was His appearance in resurrected form to numerous followers, in a variety of groupings, at various times and places (15:5-7).
The structure of Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 indicates that the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection confirmed that event in the same way Jesus’ burial confirmed His death. If the resurrection narratives are to be taken metaphorically, 1 Corinthians 15:5-7 not only fails to point in that direction, it serves to quite effectively deceive the reader. Any normal reading of verses 5-7 recognizes these verses as incompatible with a metaphorical reading of the resurrection narratives found in the four Gospels.
Having asserted the historical death and resurrection of Christ, the Apostle then labors to say that this message is anything but ancillary to the faith. He argues that “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (15:14). Far from claiming that the physical resurrection of Jesus is “ultimately irrelevant” and “doesn’t matter,” the Apostle Paul boldly asserts: “If the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” In other words, without the bodily resurrection of Christ—without “something having happened to Jesus’ corpse”—there is no Christian faith, and there is no forgiveness of sin.
To the contrary, Paul proclaims that “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (15:16-17, 20). In other words, Jesus does not merely live in the hearts of His followers as we continue to experience His influence in some “new spiritual reality.” Rather, Jesus broke the chains of death so as to secure the final resurrection of His people (15:35-56).
What possible importance could Paul assign to the “firstfruits” aspect of Jesus’ resurrection if His resurrection is merely metaphorical? Paul is not doodling with words here. He is saying that Jesus defeated death physically and thereby, as the first one to conquer death in the flesh, secured the bodily resurrection of His people (Rom. 8:23, Col. 1:18, 1 Thess. 4:14).
It is important to note that the Apostle Paul is not composing a narrative for the entertainment of the Corinthian church. He is writing a letter of earnest instruction—the contents of which are ill-fitted to a metaphorical reading of the resurrection narratives. The Apostolic witness, proclaimed authoritatively a mere month-and-a-half after Jesus’ death (Acts 2:14-41) and in full agreement with centuries of prophecy, is that Jesus physically died to pay the penalty of sin and rose bodily from the dead to secure the salvation of those who turn from their sin and trust in His provision (Acts 2:22-24, 38-40). And that’s something to celebrate Easter morning and every day for the rest of eternity.